Skip to main content

T35/F30 Trainee, Kieran Koch-Laskowski, Ph.D., Advances Obesity Research

Dr. Kieran Koch-Laskowski, currently enrolled in the Combined D.V.M.–Ph.D. Program at Cornell University’s College of Veterinary Medicine, has had aspirations of pursuing veterinary school since childhood. Her innate love of animals and desire to help them steered her toward an undergraduate program at the University of Pennsylvania to earn a B.A. in the biological basis of behavior (neuroscience).

Figure 1. Dr. Kieran Koch-Laskowski. Photo courtesy of Dr. Koch-Laskowski.

Dr. Koch-Laskowski (Figure 1) sought opportunities throughout her undergraduate studies to gain a broad range of experiences with animals in different clinical and zoological settings. Having no previous research experience, she sought out and obtained a position as an undergraduate assistant in a translational neuroscience laboratory led by Dr. Matthew R. Hayes. There, she received a warm welcome from the Hayes laboratory and helped graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, and technicians perform studies to characterize neural signaling pathways that control feeding behavior and regulate metabolic health. In doing so, Dr. Koch-Laskowski discovered an undeniable passion for biomedical science and became fascinated by the potential for translational research to advance both animal and human health, particularly in the context of widespread metabolic diseases, such as obesity and type 2 diabetes. With the help of Dr. Hayes and other supportive mentors in the Hayes group, she completed an undergraduate honors thesis that explored neuroendocrine hormones in the gut and brain. These hormones, particularly glucagon-like peptide-1, are increasingly being used as therapeutics for obesity and type 2 diabetes.

After earning her B.A. in 2016, Dr. Koch-Laskowski continued working as a full-time research technician in the Hayes laboratory to build her experience, experimental skill set, and ability to manage different projects. She co-led a study investigating combination therapies in a preclinical model for obesity as a strategy to promote robust weight loss by targeting multiple neuroendocrine signaling pathways.1 While deciding whether to pursue veterinary school or a biomedical Ph.D. program, she also worked as a veterinary assistant in a small animal hospital based in Philadelphia. Dr. Koch-Laskowski shared, “Balancing both roles was a challenging task, but it was rewarding and helped me realize that I did not want to give up one path for the other.” She explored avenues to combine both training paths, including dual-degree tracks. 

Figure 2. MicroRNAs display robust lineage-specific expression patterns in the intestinal epithelium. Top: Principal component analysis of variance stabilized transformed small RNA-seq counts from sorted cell populations shows clustering of samples by small intestine epithelial cell type. Sorted cell populations represented include enteroendocrine cells (EECs), enterocytes, goblet cells, intestinal stem cells (ISCs), Paneth cells, and tuft cells. Bottom: MicroRNA enrichment in each of the six main small intestinal cell types (excluding intermediate progenitor populations). (© Shanahan et al. 2021)

In 2018, Dr. Koch-Laskowski applied and was granted admission to the Combined D.V.M.–Ph.D. Program in the College of Veterinary Medicine at Cornell University. As she embarked on her graduate training, she continued to explore her research interests in metabolic health. As she started the veterinary curriculum, her first summers as a combined-degree student were spent participating in Cornell University’s Veterinary Investigator Program. Through these rotational experiences, she worked in laboratories focused on metabolic health in relation to gut biology, functional genomics, and bioinformatics. The Veterinary Investigator Program exposes students in their first or second year of veterinary school in the College of Veterinary Medicine to all phases of biomedical research—including the development of research ideas; preparation of research proposals; performance of biomedical research; and presentation of research results in written, poster, and oral formats at the annual National Veterinary Scholars Symposia. The Veterinary Investigator Program is under the umbrella of the ORIP Summer Programs for Veterinary Students (T35), which trains highly qualified veterinarians for research careers in biomedical areas related to comparative medicine. The T35 program provides research training experiences for selected veterinary students for periods of 2–3 months. The objective is to attract highly qualified veterinary students to biomedical and biobehavioral research careers. The program offers research opportunities that might not be otherwise available to veterinary students. 

In 2020, Dr. Koch-Laskowski transitioned to pursue her dissertation work under the direction of her Ph.D. thesis advisor and mentor, Dr. Praveen Sethupathy, an expert in leveraging genomic approaches to better understand gastrointestinal physiology and human disease. Despite starting her Ph.D. at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, she made the most of her time in the Sethupathy laboratory. She built on her previous interests in neuroendocrinology and applied her newly developed computational skills to study hormone-producing gut endocrine cells, or enteroendocrine cells (EECs), primarily in rodent models and a limited set of patient-derived samples. This led to Dr. Koch-Laskowski’s ORIP Individual Predoctoral D.V.M.–Ph.D. Fellowship (F30) award, which focuses on using genome-scale technologies to dissect EECs at the molecular level in search of novel therapeutic targets for metabolic disease. 

As part of her efforts, Dr. Koch-Laskowski worked alongside Sethupathy laboratory researchers and collaborators to profile gene expression signatures of the various cell types, including EECs, among the gut epithelium in mouse models. Together, they comprehensively characterized specific microRNAs as underexplored noncoding RNA regulators of gut epithelial cell populations (Figure 2).2

Additionally, Dr. Koch-Laskowski spearheaded a collaborative effort between the Sethupathy laboratory and a team at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus led by Dr. Darleen Sandoval. Composed of leading experts in the field of bariatric surgery, the Sandoval laboratory uses experimental animal models and patient-derived models to study the effects of vertical sleeve gastrectomy (VSG), one of the most common bariatric procedures currently performed to promote long-lasting weight loss, diabetes remission, and other metabolic improvements in patients. Through this collaboration, Dr. Koch-Laskowski used a cutting-edge single-cell transcriptomic approach to define VSG-induced adaptations within the gut and their potential mechanistic contributions to the therapeutic outcomes of bariatric surgery—with the aim of ultimately leveraging this information to develop better, less invasive treatment strategies.3

Notably, Dr. Koch-Laskowski is the first in her immediate family to complete a 4-year college degree and the first in her personal circle to pursue doctorate-level training. She credits her professional growth as a burgeoning veterinary clinician–scientist to her mentors, who were patient and encouraging while teaching her everything about the scientific enterprise—from using a pipette, to working with laboratory animals, to designing experiments, to collecting and interpreting data, to presenting data as a cohesive research story. As the recipient of very supportive mentorship throughout her academic journey, she strives to “pay it forward” by helping students explore research for the first time. In Cornell University’s Combined Degree Program, she has helped junior D.V.M.–Ph.D. and D.V.M. students get started with their research through the Veterinary Investigators Program and other informal capacities. She also has served as a mentor in more formal roles, including as a teaching assistant for an upper-level undergraduate animal physiology course. Outside of Cornell, Dr. Koch-Laskowski has volunteered as a student leader for the National Association of Veterinary Scientists and helped redesign its website to be a more broadly accessible resource for aspiring and current D.V.M.–Ph.D. students. 

After defending her Ph.D. thesis in November 2023, Dr. Koch-Laskowski returned to the D.V.M. curriculum of her program to complete her veterinary clinical training. Her future goals include exploring career options in academia and industry, as well as other paths. She looks forward to opportunities to mentor the next generation of veterinary clinician–scientists. She already has participated in workshops that help people become better teachers and mentors in a way that embraces and embodies such important principles as accessibility, diversity, and equity—thereby making scientific training more inclusive. Dr. Koch-Laskowski expressed gratitude for the support she has received from ORIP-sponsored T35 training grants and her F30 fellowship, which have significantly facilitated her academic and research training.

For more information about research training opportunities for veterinary students, please visit ORIP’s Training and Career Development webpages: https://orip.nih.gov/division-comparative-medicine/training-career-development.

References

1 Liberini CG, Koch-Laskowski K, Shaulson E, et al. Combined Amylin/GLP-1 pharmacotherapy to promote and sustain long-lasting weight loss. Sci Rep. 2019;9(1):8447. doi:10.1038/s41598-019-44591-8.

2 Shanahan MT, Kanke M, Oyesola OO, et al. Multiomic analysis defines the first microRNA atlas across all small intestinal epithelial lineages and reveals novel markers of almost all major cell types. Am J Physiol Gastrointest Liver Physiol. 2021;321(6):G668–G681. doi:10.1152/ajpgi.00222.2021.

3 Koch-Laskowski K, Kim KS, Bethea M, et al. Intestinal epithelial adaptations to vertical sleeve gastrectomy defined at single-cell resolution. Genomics. 2024:110805. doi:10.1016/j.ygeno.2024.110805.